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Remarks by Ambassador Ron Kirk at the United Negro College Fund

November 20, 2009
United Negro College Fund
Dallas, TX

*As Prepared for Delivery*

"Thank you all for having me here today. Thank you to Michael Sorrell for that introduction and for his work at Paul Quinn College, and my thanks as well to Michael Lomax for his incredible dedication as President of the UNCF.

As United States Trade Representative, I spend my time working to tear down barriers to trade and open new markets to American goods, services, and intellectual property.

Just last week I traveled to Singapore for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and then to Beijing for meetings with Chinese leaders. I joined the President in pursuing increased economic engagement across the Pacific, creating new opportunities for Americans to do business with some of the world's fastest-growing economies. Because we know that when Americans do business with the world, that can generate jobs here at home.

We are laying a strong foundation for trade, but the world is changing rapidly, and the expertise necessary to succeed is changing with it. For America to compete in the global economy, American workers need to have the skills to meet the ever-changing needs of the world's population.

Whether it's developing new energy resources or marketing new health care solutions, today's problems require inventive answers. And the competitive edge will go to whichever country develops forward-looking products and ideas. In today's world, it's not enough just to have the best minds - to be competitive in the global economy we need the best-educated minds.

Take a look at the educational advances of the 20th century: from free public schooling to the GI bill, America opened the doors of learning wider to each successive generation. And each new class of graduates built new businesses, invented new tools, and helped to make America a world leader in manufacturing, commerce, and trade.

President Obama knows that our economic future hinges on how we educate our students today. And he is committed to helping every American student receive a quality education. Because the bottom line is, diplomas and degrees are still the tickets to success.

That's true for individuals, and it's also true for countries. The nations with the best talent have an advantage in the global marketplace, and that advantage shows up in the numbers. According to one of the most respected studies of student performance worldwide, countries like Canada and Korea are doing a better job of equipping their students to meet the needs of the 21st century. And the gap between the best educated nations and American students is estimated to cost the United States more than a trillion dollars a year.

So President Obama has issued a call to action. He knows that we must equip students with more than just the basics - in today's economy, they need advanced knowledge. And that means a college education.

To that end, the President has set an ambitious goal. He wants the United States to produce a higher percentage of college graduates than any other country in the world by the end of the next decade.

Right now, only about 40% of Americans hold a college degree. To reach President Obama's goal, we need to help millions more students graduate from college. That won't be easy. To succeed, we need partners like the UNCF - organizations with the resources and the drive to help students navigate the challenges of higher education. The effects of education are so dramatic, we simply can't afford not to educate a single child.

That fact has not changed in 200 years. We all recognize the wisdom of an education, but somehow, we are still aren't getting the job done. Too many of our students aren't even making it through high school, much less going to college. They are falling behind and dropping out. In some schools, less than half of the African-American students who enter as freshman will graduate as seniors. We have to do more to get these kids through school.

And we can't stop at their high school graduation. The unemployment rate for individuals with a bachelor's degree is half that for those with only a high-school diploma. College-educated workers aren't just more likely to find a job; they're more likely to hold higher-paying, higher-quality jobs.

That's why organizations like UNCF are so critical. Historically black colleges and universities have been a path to higher paying jobs and better lives for generations of young students.

Both of my parents attended a historically black university. Their education was the foundation of my family's success, and the starting point of everything I have achieved. Even today, historically black colleges and universities grant about one in every five degrees handed to an African-American student.

We need to support their work, and I know you are. Your focus on increasing graduation rates and closing the achievement gap is paving the way for their success. That is good for minority students, and it's good for all of America. Closing the racial achievement gap between white and minority students could increase this country's productivity by hundreds of billions of dollars and vastly increase the pool of trained minds available to American businesses.

Employers will pay a premium for skilled, educated workers who can better help them to succeed. And when American companies outshine their competitors in the global marketplace, that creates additional jobs and opportunities here at home.

Ninety-five percent of the world's consumers live outside of America. Our future is going to depend upon our ability to sell our goods, services, and intellectual property to those customers. And we're going to have to compete for their business. Because countries around the world have set their sights on global consumers.

Nations on the cutting edge of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship - in other words, nations with a highly educated, highly skilled work force - will be the world's export leaders.

With that urgency in mind, President Obama devoted $100 billion in stimulus funds to education, including $31 billion dedicated to improving college access. That money is the single biggest investment in student aid since the GI bill. And it is an investment for a more prosperous future.

Next year, students will have access to billions of dollars in new grants, loans, and assistance. It is estimated that more than 14 million students will use this assistance to pay for college. And as this organization knows, even a little money can go a long way toward helping a college student earn their cap and gown.

President Obama is also supporting new efforts to ensure that students who start college actually finish. Right now, almost half of all college freshmen fail to earn a degree within six years. For poor and minority students, that percentage is even higher.

When we arm students with the knowledge to succeed, that enriches us all. Every degree conferred enhances America's prospects for the future. President Obama has said that our commitment to education, "will determine not just whether our children have the chance to fulfill their God-given potential...but whether we as a nation will remain, in the 21st century, the kind of global economic leader that we were in the 20th."

Now, we have a lot of work to do, but we're certainly not starting from scratch. Historically black colleges and universities like your members have educated premier minds from Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes to Spike Lee and Barbara Jordan. And American universities across the board are among the best in the world.

That educational excellence has paid dividends to us all. According to World Bank data, America's per capita income is over 40 percent higher than the average in other high income countries around the world. In part, that difference can be attributed to a long-time focus on. And it shows the vast promise of renewing and reinvigorating that focus.

It will take all of us doing everything we can do. The first building on Paul Quinn College's campus was constructed through a "ten cents a brick" campaign; little by little, the community gave what they could toward the dream of an education. And in 1944, Dr. Frederick Patterson, President of Tuskegee University, brought the UNCF into existence through an "appeal to the national conscience."

Our nation needs to train every American mind to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that exist in the 21st century. We need to help today's students dream big, and then we need to give them the tools to realize their dreams. Because America needs their dreams, their skills, their inventions, and their innovations to continue to thrive in the global economy. And we need a strong and healthy UNCF to help them along the way.

Thank you all for your work on behalf of America's college students. I look forward to hearing more from all of you about how we can work together to help the next generation succeed."